Crime auteur James Gray shifts gears with new romantic drama.
Having previously worked exclusively in the New York crime film sub-genre, writer-director James Gray shifts creative gears with the new ensemble romantic drama Two Lovers. If that sounds like an unusual change of course, fans of his previous films – Little Odessa, The Yards, 2006′s under-appreciated We Own The Night- will recognize the budding auteur’s trademark color palette and visual vocabulary right away in the trailer below. And of course there’s also the presence of Joaquin Phoenix, Gray’s designated leading man.
Two Lovers, loosely based on among other sources the Dostoevsky novella “White Nights,” also reveals a growing ambition for the upstart filmmaker, as it’s potentially the most emotionally complex work of his career. Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) returns to his Brooklyn home after getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Monoshov) are preparing to sell their dry cleaning business to their neighbors the Cohens, and suggest to that end that Leonard begin a courtship with the family’s daughter (Vinessa Shaw). That budding romance, built on tenderness and compassion, is set against Leonard’s rising passion for his energetic neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the kept woman of a businessman (Elias Koteas) who misuses her affections. Obviously, much of the dramatic tension turns on Leonard’s choice of women.
Gray’s films often frustrate film goers and critics alike. His bleak visual style, in which endless shades of grays, browns, and blacks surround the characters and only sometimes reveal bursts of color, is admittedly something of an acquired taste. His actors, Phoenix especially, give low-key performances, and combined with the dreary settings his films’ end results are routinely dismissed as leaden or ponderous. Nevertheless, his confidence and his proficiency in conveying emotional complexity have grown by leaps and bounds with each film, and there is a distinct, if not exactly welcoming, narrative voice taking shape throughout. Gray is primarily interested in the unspoken distance between his characters, and a recurring theme in his work suggests that freedom of choice is often only illusory because circumstances (like the monolithic cityscapes surrounding them) confine them past the point of any real hope of action.
All of which makes him an apt fit to bring anything by famously miserable Russian literature patriarch Dostoevsky to the screen. Gray’s also assembled his best cast yet to tackle the material. Phoenix has grown impressively as an actor throughout his career (His best performance to date, not coincidentally, was in We Own The Night.) Paltrow has labored for years in projects unworthy of her screen presence, while Rossellini and Koteas improve any film in which they participate. Shaw was memorable in her brief turn in 2007′s 3:10 To Yuma; a standout performance could likely present a breakout.
Finally, depending on the accuracy of some reports Phoenix is quitting acting, part of a larger ongoing story that actually doesn’t merit elaboration. But some early reviews point to his turn here becoming a perfect career coda if those rumors are true. Two Lovers opens in limited release this Friday.